Jon Gruden has mentally penciled these Carolina Panthers into the playoffs already. His only question is how far they can go – and he thinks a berth in the Super Bowl is possible.
Gruden, who won a Super Bowl as Tampa Bay’s head coach, will be the lead analyst when Carolina hosts New England on “Monday Night Football” at 8:40 p.m. on ESPN in what will be the biggest home game the Panthers have had since the 2008 season.
We caught up by telephone Friday for a 15-minute interview. Gruden said he had been studying film of the Panthers and Patriots all week and had already decided he would be watching a game between two playoff teams Monday night.
“I think Carolina will end up winning 10 or 11 games this year,” Gruden said. “I just can’t tell you how impressed I am with that defense.”
The former coach mentioned that while Seattle and San Francisco are often considered the class of the NFC, the Panthers beat the 49ers and could have beaten Seattle except for a late DeAngelo Williams fumble.
So what’s the high end for this Carolina team? I asked Gruden if the Panthers could reach the Super Bowl this year in the right situation.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” Gruden said.
He continued: “I haven’t seen anybody hold San Francisco to 151 yards total offense. Have you? Especially on the road. Gosh, Carolina could have easily beaten Buffalo. ... This Panther team could easily be undefeated. There’s a lot of upside. Provided they stay healthy and take care of the football, this is a team that can do some damage.”
Despite all of that, Gruden isn’t saying that the Panthers (6-3) are going to beat New England (7-2). He’s simply saying that the Panthers have finally gotten to a point where they can hang with Tom Brady and company.
“The Patriots have been pretty decimated with injuries on defense,” Gruden said. “They’ve had to play some unknowns there, and Tom Brady has had to make the adjustment to a whole new cast of receivers, but I think he’s done that by now. This is a New England team that gets into a lot of tight football games, and it’s still got (coach Bill) Belichick and Brady, and those two still usually find a way to win in the fourth quarter.”
Gruden is so quotable that I’m going to stop writing now and just let him talk. If you want a preview of what Gruden will say on the Monday night telecast about the Panthers, here you go.